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Star Trek backstory for USS Discovery sentient computer exists in Michael Chabon's head

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Nov 8, 2018, 9:30 PM EST

Hardcore Star Trek fans everywhere will have one question after watching “Calypso," the newest installment of Short Treks: What was happening on the USS Discovery for 1,000 years?

The writer of the episode’s teleplay, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, has an answer, but it might not be the one you’d expect. In fact, he suggests that it’s possible all of the computers in Trek lore have the ability to do what Zora does in this episode, but maybe they’ve just been suppressed.

“In my mind, in the 1,000 years she’s been alone, she may have been all kinds of people, a whole library of personas. But Zora is the one she chooses to present to Craft,” Chabon told SYFY WIRE. “She had a lot of time on her hands and went through many incarnations. She may have had a male persona and a female persona and all kinds of persona. She also consumes massive amounts of media. Every film ever made. I mean, a starship like that could have a media library representing the cultural output of hundreds of civilizations over tens of thousands of years.

"So she’s kind of become an expert on how human emotion works, how moral quandaries work and how that kind of thing manifests itself. She’s made a study of it, and so she’s able to produce this magnificent persona. That’s what she’s been doing with herself.”

In “Calypso,” despite being set on the mysteriously abandoned Discovery, the rest of the Star Trek universe's baggage and its continuity are pretty much absent. The main character, a castaway named Craft (Aldis Hodge,) interacts with the Discovery’s main computer (Annabelle Wallis) and they basically fall in love. It’s a quiet, small and personal story, very much keeping with the tone of the first Short Treks installment, “Runaway.”

In other words, despite the ominous tone of the trailers and the first few minutes of the episode, “Calypso” is a decidedly upbeat meditation on A.I., essentially the opposite of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or any other hostile sentient computer in all of sci-fi ever. For Chabon, it was more than just important to avoid sci-fi cliches in telling Zora and Craft’s story — it was essential.

“I mean, you could go in the direction where it’s a cat-and-mouse game between an evil A.I. on a ship trying to be terrifying and manipulative. Like a spider that’s caught a fly in her web. But that feels a little well done to me. It feels a little familiar,” Chabon says. “Suddenly I could be in conversation with a lot of movies and TV shows that I prefer not to be in conversation with. The story always presented itself to me with a poignancy.”

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"Poignant" feels like the right word for “Calypso,” but it also feels refreshingly human.

For fans hoping to get questions answered about Klingon anatomy or why Spock has grown a beard or how the Picard series will shake out, this story could feel off-putting, which is part of why it’s good. It's not going to give you any geeky answers about mystery box questions. That's not what it's about. It's just a small short story, which happens to be set on a starship.

Obviously or not, the title is derived from a Greek goddess of the same name, a being who hung out with Odysseus on an island while he was away from his family in The Odyssey. Ditto for the story of Craft and Zora, the Odysseus and Calypso of this installment of Short Treks.

“At what point does a synthetic intelligence become so indistinguishable from a human consciousness that we have no choice but to acknowledge this as human?" Chabon says. "I wanted this guy to be confronted with a kind of indisputable reality. And he brings it on himself when he invites her to represent herself. Up until that point... He’s safe. But at that point, he can’t deny that she is a person in some way and that he is attracted to her."

The ending of the episode finds Zora releasing Craft from exile aboard the empty USS Discovery. We have no idea why the ship is empty or whether this even is the version of the Discovery we know so well. The episode isn’t interested in answering any of those questions, just telling a story. Having said that, Chabon does seem to casually suggest a huge change to Star Trek canon. Are the computers aboard all these starships capable of becoming this self-aware?

"We don’t have any kind of indication from Discovery that the ship’s computer is that much more nuanced than ships’ computers have tended to be on Star Trek for a while," he says. "I don't think we ever see characters interacting with the ship like it was a person. Maybe that’s done by design? So maybe that’s how ship’s computers are intended to be. And maybe there’s some kind of discouragement in place to keep them from becoming too human in some way."

If you want any more explanation as to why the computer is the way it is in this episode, or why the crew is gone, Chabon isn't revealing anything else. He can't talk about the Captain Picard series he's writing for, either, even though it's all fans want to ask him about. He’s recently said that he believes Picard is a perfect hero for modern times.

So, what will Chabon’s famous writing chops bring to the Picard series? If “Calypso” is any indication, Chabon will be focused way more on telling human stories than meditating on warp drives. Meaning, if Picard never says "engage" in the new series, that might actually be a good thing.

Short Treks: “Calypso” is streaming now on CBS All Access.